There’s always been a mystique about British country clothing. Though most of those wearing it have probably never lived in a stately home, it still comes loaded with country-house overtones, with hints of golden acres, historic buildings and ancient traditions. Because it was originally devised for real country pursuits (riding, shooting, fishing), it had to be practical, it had to protect the wearer against wind and rain and allow for easy movement – but the romance surrounding it means it has been a constant source of inspiration for designers around the world. Ralph Lauren, for instance, famously built a whole empire round the codes of English countrywear, and most of the great designers regularly dip into its imagery.
Nearer to home though, many of those obliged to wear it for practical reasons weren’t quite so beguiled. Women were particularly dissatisfied. Brought up in the country with a deep love of rural life, they needed clothes that worked, but found the ranges on offer from the traditional suppliers staid, unattractive, restricting and unfeminine. As one of the new designers busy reinventing the genre – the 8th Countess of Lucan – put it to me, “they weren’t fun, flattering or fit for purpose”.
So, what we find now is that a group of enterprising women – all of whom were brought up rooted in rural places, all of whom are profoundly attached to a country way of life – have decided to invent and design for themselves the sort of clothing and accessories that they couldn’t find in the marketplace. Natalie Lake was probably first off the starting block with her company Really Wild, which she started 16 years ago. Shooting was Lake’s sport, and she found the clothes on offer weren’t flattering and didn’t fit properly. Her breakthrough piece was a pair of breeks cut rather like a pair of jeans. Lake made them out of luxurious fine wools and tweeds and they immediately took off.
From there, she decided to concentrate on tailoring and a fine fit. So, while the design is traditional, if you look carefully at, say, the short Field coat (£535), the long coats (in particular the Aston, £395, or the Pembridge, £445) or the waistcoats (the nubuck – £495 – is beloved of the Duchess of Cambridge), you will notice that they are beautifully shaped to accommodate the female waist. Lake uses lots of tweeds from Scotland, often in exclusive patterns, and adds beguiling details such as bespoke buttons, colourful linings behind the collars and stitching round the buttonholes.
Today there is a whole panoply of clothes and accessories, ranging from breeks, jackets, coats and jumpers to fedoras, gloves and boots – always produced in small runs. Not all are strictly functional – like most of the new-age country ranges – but all are aimed at women who want clothes that look good at home but not out of place in town, filling what James Greenfield, managing director of Bamford, once called “the sweet spot – clothes that bridge town and country”. Lake sells at Badminton and Burghley Horse Trials, as well as the Cheltenham Festival and online.
A decade ago Jade Holland Cooper stepped into the arena with her eponymous label Holland Cooper, which she calls “contemporary clothing inspired by the British countryside”. A farmer’s daughter, she was studying at The Royal Agricultural University when she became frustrated by the fact that there seemed to be two or three identical-looking jackets everybody wore to country events that “were neither fitted nor fashionable”.
In 2008 she designed a miniskirt in tweed (the Tally Ho, £99), which immediately took off, and today she particularly loves mixing tweeds with suedes and leathers (“It pulls the clothes right out of the old-school look”). Her capes (from £499) are what she calls her “hero” product – they come in glorious soft colours, including a chic steel grey, but are often enlivened with ostrich feathers, leather trims or fur. She also offers a complete range of skirts, breeks, jackets, coats and hats. Both Marina Gibson, one of fishing’s great female success stories, and Rachel Carrie, a star of the shooting world, wear her kit (the latter is an ambassador). Jade Holland Cooper uses only British tweeds and wools, with five factories making her designs, and offers a bespoke service at her showroom in Moreton-in-Marsh.
A relative newcomer is Lady Melissa Percy, youngest daughter of the 12th Duke of Northumberland, who entered the fray last September, launching Mistamina surrounded by a group of glossy friends, such as Princess Eugenie of York, Lady Alice Manners and Otis Ferry. Brought up at Alnwick Castle (of Harry Potter fame), which has one of the finest shoots in the country, Lady Percy says her happiest days growing up were spent enjoying country sports – particularly fishing and shooting – and so she wanted to create a collection of country clothing to meet the needs of herself and her friends.
“There weren’t the clothes we wanted for our country sports – they would sit in the wrong place and we couldn’t move around in them, so we used to buy boys’ clothes in small sizes. I wanted a fun, fresh take on country clothing that had some style. I also thought there was no reason not to have little pops of colour, so I’ve added some royal blue and jade green to the collection.”
At the moment the range is quite small, but includes camouflage bomber jackets (£160), chunky jerseys with shoulder patches (£90, particularly lovely in cream) and soft fitted shirts (£70). In the pipeline are plans for camouflage trousers and dungarees – and a jacket designed with her mother Jane, the Duchess of Northumberland, in mind, especially to wear while walking the dog.
Annabel Tyrwhitt-Drake founded Miller & Drake last August because so many of her friends fancied the tweed culottes that she took to wearing while out shooting. So today she offers beautifully cut culottes (£245) in a variety of Scottish tweeds, as well as some very stylish fedoras (£75) in a host of colours, and woollen shooting socks (£70), though you could perfectly well wear them for walking the dogs.
Meanwhile, sisters Rosie van Cutsem and Lucia Ruck Keene three years ago launched their countrywear brand Troy, named after their childhood home in Oxfordshire. They are well-connected, and their clothes are worn by all sorts of impeccably grand women, from Francesca Cumani of ITV Racing to the Duchess of Cambridge (who wore their faux-fur collars, £65, and cuffs, £40, on a royal trip to Scandinavia in February and has also been photographed in their streamlined waxed parka, £350). The range of parkas is probably the most sought-after of all their clothing. Options include faux or real fur trim, and while some veer towards the fashionable end of the clothing spectrum, others are more to the practical side. But there are also gilets (£480) and moleskin breeches (£260), sleek luxe jodhpurs in taupe (£220) and suede skirts (£250).
Then there’s Alice Leet-Cook and Rosie Turner, sisters who grew up on a farm in Suffolk. They have moved in country-sports circles all their lives, and it was their love of these sports that pushed them into starting Hicks & Brown four years ago. They launched with their hugely popular fedoras (from £89), which they sold at point-to-points (I’m not quite sure what it is about the country and fedoras, but they seem to have become an inextricable part of the fashionable kit in these circles). The hats are designed with feathers that they source in Somerset; from there, they moved into belts and bags, but today they also sell jackets, waistcoats and gilets (£295). Their bestseller (apart from the fedoras) is the dry waxed jacket (from £189), which is showerproof, and they’ve gone to great trouble to make it shapely and stylish, offering it with or without fur.
Finally, the latest arrival on the scene provides some of the most glamorous country clothing of all: Lucan, the brainchild of Lady Lucan, otherwise known as Anne-Sofie Foghsgaard. A stylish Dane, who married Lord Lucan in 2016, she was brought up in the world of country sport. In particular, she loves shooting and has represented both Team GB and France. “I was always frustrated that the clothes were so dull and so I thought back to the country clothing of the 1860s and 1920s, when women were always very glamorous,” she reveals. “I’ve tried to inject this glamour into my range. I wanted to create clothes that were versatile and could go from country to town.”
What she’s done is to add a lot of colour to some of the traditional shapes. There is, for instance, a supremely flattering coat, the Castlebar (£1,200). “It’s my favourite piece – it has the wow factor and exudes energy, life and happiness,” says Lady Lucan. It comes in a range of colours, but is particularly charming in sky blue with orange collar and cuffs. “The cuffs extend to show more colour and to keep the hands warm,” she explains. It has a row of buttons down the front, is cut to emphasise the waist and then flares out to create an air of dash and pizzazz. There are breeches (£335) with beautiful buttoned cuffs, capes (£750) and gilets (£425), but Lady Lucan has lots more ideas up her sleeves. First up may be a range of velvet clothing, but she’s also working on a men’s line. For the moment she sells online, will give private viewings by appointment and when Belvoir Castle opens a luxury spa and restaurant shortly, she will install a rail of her clothing there.
These collections added glamour and colour to age-old country pursuits. Designed by women who live and love the country way of life, they’ve managed to weave a sense of tradition with an air of modernity, introducing some luxe, some style and – a quality Lady Lucan values above all – a dash of the famed British sense of humour. Country pursuits will never be the same again.